Living Columns & Blogs

Ask a Gardener: What’s most important to do before starting to plant this spring?

Cory DeWispelaere-Rusch plants kale in March 2014 at the Happy Valley community garden. Planning is an important first step in preparing your garden for planting.
Cory DeWispelaere-Rusch plants kale in March 2014 at the Happy Valley community garden. Planning is an important first step in preparing your garden for planting. The Bellingham Herald

It’s that time of year again, all you gardening folks. Despite fits and starts and unpredictable weather, it’s the right time to do the planning and plotting so essential to gardening success.

You can save time, energy, and money by doing prep work before you even venture outside. And no, it’s not too late to plant. Research has shown that plants prefer to be planted late and will quickly catch up with the early-planted ones.

First, determine what the purpose of your gardening efforts will be. Do you need a new flower or shrub bed to enhance your front or back or side yard? Or are you determined to raise food for your family? Whatever it is, planning is the key to success.

Whether landscaping or vegetable gardening, the first step is research: what plants will you choose and where will they be planted? The easiest way to devise a plan is from information you find in books, the internet or nurseries. There’s more help out there than you can believe.

Landscape gardeners, take some time to drive around neighborhoods. When you see plants you like or a yard design that attracts you, snap a picture. If you have no idea the name of a plant, take the picture to your local nursery for help in identification.

Vegetable gardeners, the best place for you to start is by making a list of all the vegetables and fruits you and your family like. There’s little point in the time, energy, expense and space that’s wasted on something no one will eat. Once you’ve compiled your list of plants, check out the internet, books and experienced vegetable gardening friends to help you plot your food garden.

All types of gardeners can glean information from the many talks, classes and workshops offered by local nurseries and garden clubs. And don’t overlook the weekly Farmer’s Market when it’s time to buy your plants. A great place to see plants growing, including a weed garden, which can tell you the names and habits of all those weeds in your own garden, is the Master Gardener Demonstration garden at Hovander Park. They hold free classes throughout the summer as well.

Essential to good crops and plants is good soil. Don’t waste time and money just throwing amendments into it. Get a soil test, which will tell you exactly what the condition of your soil is. There are a few local options, including Simply Soil Testing, 20312 Lafayette Rd, Burlington, WA 98233, (360) 202-1086.

When you get the results (they’ll give you the instructions on how they want the sample of soil taken) you’ll then know what to add to improve your soil. Places to buy amendments are feed stores, nurseries and Big Box stores. Northern Lights Gardening should be of particular interest to those who want to buy in large quantities.

One thing for all gardeners to consider is picking plants and seeds that will do well in our climate.

With a few mild winters, we sometimes forget we’ll inevitably get a douzy like this last one. That lovely expensive plant you couldn’t resist and hoped would do well in our climate might not have made it this year. Unless you take extra care and effort – covering, bringing indoors, etc. – you may lose the plant.

It’s a gamble to push the limits; it’s not fun to lose plants to inclement weather. Every plant tag and seed packet gives zones where that plant will grow best.

So why, do you ask, do some plants grow so well for one person and not so well (if at all) for another? It could be several things, including soil, water, microclimate, protection by other plants or planting in a warmer, protected spot. In our climate, for example, tomatoes do much better planted against a south-facing wall, where there’s less wind and the temperature is higher.

Good news, gardeners, is that once you’ve done the basic preparation, you’ll be right on target to begin planting. The birds and budding trees and shrubs tell us spring is really right around the corner!

Kathleen Bander of Bellingham is a life-long gardener. Her column will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to For more gardening information online, go to